The Vampire Squid of Questionable Journalism Swallows Matt Taibbi
Matt Taibbi is one of the best writers about politics, the media, and finance on planet earth right now. When I say that, I don’t mean that everything he writes is particularly revealing or that every one of his pieces can legitimately be called a journalistic triumph, but if the goal of being a writer is to effectively draw mental pictures with words and to entertain the reader, there’s nobody better than Taibbi. He’s smart, daring, and viciously funny, which is all you can really ask of writer who spends most of his or her time in the stupid world of U.S. politics and economics.
I started reading Taibbi back when he was still writing for the New York Press, an alt-weekly that admittedly could never quite compete with the Village Voice and which ultimately was forced to fire Taibbi when he wrote a 2005 column skewering the media’s fawning coverage of the impending death of Pope John Paul called “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.” Even before that was Spanking the Donkey, a book of Taibbi’s columns collected from his time on the road covering the 2004 presidential election. Its high points involved Taibbi joining the Bush campaign office in Orlando and dropping acid and dressing up as a gorilla to do an interview. If you haven’t read it, you really do need to.
Since those days, he’s of course gone on to become probably the most ferocious documenter of the sins and excesses of Wall Street’s various asshole masters of the universe anywhere in the world of journalism. A lot of the stuff he’s written as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone has been essential to understanding just how badly firms like Goldman Sachs played the American public and eventually sent the entire global economy into a death spiral in the name of raking in billions in profits. But now, maybe unfortunately, Taibbi will be moving on — to First Look Media.
Pierre Omidyar’s $250-million venture — which so far lured the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill to its gold-plated shores — announced yesterday that Taibbi would be joining it as an editor of a news magazine, like Greenwald’s “The Intercept,” that will focus strictly on financial and political corruption. While this is certainly a giant shot of journalistic adrenaline into the heart of First Look, only time will tell whether this move will be a boon to Taibbi or will hopelessly marginalize him. Remember, Glenn Greenwald is nominally one of the journalistic managers at First Look and it stands to reason that if he’s allowed authority over Taibbi in any way, even though the two see eye-to-eye on many issues, Taibbi’s work could suffer greatly. Taibbi’s always aligned himself with the Greenwald/Scahill crowd, so this move shouldn’t come as a surprise; Greenwald probably began trying to entice Taibbi away from Rolling Stone as soon as he came onboard First Look. As expected, he’s helping to staff the place with people who can co-exist with him in terms of their anti-establishment bona fides.
The problem here is two-fold. One is personal for Taibbi in that, no matter how much money Omidyar is pouring into First Look, Rolling Stone is a bigger, more powerful, more prestigious platform. Simple as that. But the second part of the equation goes back to the Greenwald issue, one I’ve written about before. I can break it down in terms of being a television news producer. When I was first starting out I was considered a hell of a producer, and so somebody thought it was a good idea to make me a manager, since that’s how upward mobility among TV production people works: you’re a good producer and that must mean you’ll be a good manager. Except it doesn’t always work like that. I failed miserably. That’s because there’s a difference between somebody who digs and scraps and fights from the trenches and somebody whose job it is to make sure those digging and scrapping and fighting from the trenches do their jobs correctly. Just because you’re successful as the former doesn’t mean you’ll be equally successful as the latter. It’s the same in print: Journalists who are tenacious need equally tenacious editors willing to push back against the tendencies — and biases — that may trip them up. Taibbi is always giving shout-outs to his editors at Rolling Stone and the ways they make him better as a journalist and occasionally save his ass, sometimes saving him from himself. This could mean he’ll be an excellent editor of his own work — if in fact he’s still writing and not simply curating material for his new online magazine — but it can also mean that he’ll suffer from the same problem Greenwald already suffers from: autonomy.
Greenwald’s never understood that those managers and editors at The Guardian who wanted to stand in his way when he was pushing for the initial Edward Snowden documents to be published immediately were actually doing him a favor. They were protecting him — and the paper itself. In Greenwald’s mind, these kinds of hedgers and naysayers simply interfere with the relentless pursuit of the pure journalism he practices. The reality is anything but that. Taibbi’s a far better journalist than Greenwald could ever dream of being, but a journalist’s published or aired work is really only as good as those above them willing to put their methods and conclusions through the wringer and see if they come out okay on the other end. Sometimes journalists can become so focused in their beliefs and so unrelenting in their approach, convinced the trail they’re on is the right one, that they can lose focus. And that’s why there are people above them to correct their course. We’ve heard a lot about the high-powered frontline hires of First Look, but not as much about the people behind the scenes — other than executive editor Eric Bates, who’s already shown that he’s little more than a mouthpiece for Greenwald and the First Look entity itself, someone it’s tough to imagine presenting much of a challenge to Glenn the Great and Powerful. And that has the potential to be an issue, because the personalities at First Look — Taibbi included — aren’t the type to easily be corralled and subdued when necessary.
Personally, while it’s easy to understand why any journalist would make the jump to a place where he or she will be given an unprecedented amount of latitude to pursue the subjects they’re passionate about, I think Taibbi deserves a better platform than First Look Media. Certainly one with less of a tainted, self-marginalizing journalistic pedigree going in. It would be great to think that he’ll bring First Look Media up to his level and add credibility and prestige to their journalism, but I fear it’s more likely that First Look Media’s stridently niche journalism will bring Taibbi down to their level.